The Lies I Told Cover

Another Girl Lost

Buy it Now, Read it Aug, 2024

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A woman’s harrowing past comes back to haunt her in a novel of twisting psychological suspense by New York Times bestselling author Mary Burton. Ten years ago, fifteen-year-old Scarlett Crosby was held captive in a terrifying ordeal with a girl named Della. Scarlett escaped, the police shot their predator, and Della simply vanished. Detective Kevin Dawson always wondered if Della even existed. A decade later, Scarlett is a successful artist. As hard as she tries to move on, the mysterious. Della remains her inescapable obsession. When contractors discover a girl’s body behind a wall, Scarlett’s horrific past and all her old traumas resurface. Scarlett has seen her hiding in plain sight. And now Scarlett believes that Della, who knew her secrets and the desperate compromises she’d made to survive, has returned. As a suspicious Detective Dawson once again comes calling and obsessions turn deadly, Scarlett fears she can’t trust a living soul. As for Della, who’s watching from afar, what could she want from Scarlett now? And what new nightmare lies ahead?
Another Girl Lost Excerpt

Another Girl Lost

Detective Kevin Dawson

Saturday, July 20, 2024
Norfolk, Virginia
6:00 a.m.

Fear is a shape-shifter.

It manifests in dozens of different ways. Loud shrieks, righteous wails, angry denials, moans, nervous tics, tapping feet, even nail biting. Detective Kevin Dawson had seen all incarnations in his fifteen years on the force.

He’d also crossed paths with the rare ones who didn’t show any signs of anxiety. They barricaded themselves behind an oppressive, icy silence that was difficult to penetrate. Discovering their secrets was always a challenge.

The woman sitting across the interview table from him now was one of the unusual ones. A rare breed. Scarlett Crosby had tucked herself under layers of a smooth, nonresponsive facade. Nonplussed—bored, even.

He’d yet to get under her skin, but she’d burrowed deep under his. Hours ago, he’d been pissed when he tightened the cuffs around her thin wrists, constricting the links until tension rippled through her body.

Scarlett Crosby had likely killed one woman and had been caught trying to murder another. She’d viciously attacked the arresting officer, and now Dawson, along with everyone in the department, wanted a pound of her flesh.

Two hours ago, after the paramedics had patched her up, he’d stuck her in this small, windowless interview room. He’d dimmed the lights, knowing she’d stew in shadows and dirty grays. When he’d slammed the door behind him, he’d made a show of flipping the dead bolt. His message was clear: You’re locked in. Trapped. Get used to a cell.

On his orders, she’d received no bathroom breaks, water, or coffee, and no human contact. He wanted her uncomfortable. Given her history, a little physical discomfort in a confined space might penetrate her silence.

Playing fair? Maybe not. But his job was to solve two murders, not coddle Scarlett Crosby.

When he reentered the room, her eyes were closed, and her bandaged hand rested on her thigh. If he didn’t know better, he’d say she was meditating at a yoga retreat.

She wore gray scrubs, courtesy of the forensic officer who’d confiscated her blood-soaked T-shirt, jeans, and shoes. The garments swallowed her thin frame and cast an unhealthy hue on already-pale skin stippled with traces of blood. She smelled of her victim’s perfume, the back of the squad car, and the artist’s paint she used daily.

When he flipped on the lights, she didn’t open her eyes or move.

He angled the second chair at a diagonal close to her, the position a deliberate choice to foster a connection between them. No table separating them, they were allies, not enemies.

He sipped coffee as he set a cup of water in front of her. He shouldn’t be the one talking to Scarlett Crosby. His perspective on this case was tainted, but he was the first to admit he had an on-again, off-again relationship with common sense. He wanted, needed, her to talk to him.

When she opened her eyes, there were no signs of gratitude or relief. If anything, annoyance simmered. He prided himself on sizing up suspects, but reading her was tough.

He tugged his jacket, sipped coffee. “How did we get here, Scarlett?” The use of we and her name was deliberate. Creating-connections, building-bridges kind of thing.

The suggestion that they were in this together seemed to amuse her. “I want my lawyer.” Her voice rattled with a slight rasp.

When his investigation began almost two weeks ago, he’d recognized her name immediately. An internet search unearthed ten-year-old images of a haunted, broken Scarlett staring blankly into a camera. A gash had run down her cheek, and bruises covered her neck and arms. That version of Scarlett had plagued his nightmares for a decade. He’d failed that Scarlett. She’d been the victim of Tanner Reed, who’d held, raped, and tortured her for three months. She’d suffered for those three months because when Dawson had interviewed Tanner weeks before her kidnapping, he’d not seen past the man’s easy explanations and smile. It took three months for the dots to connect in Dawson’s mind, and thanks to some dumb luck, he’d finally saved Scarlett. The world had seen him as her ultimate savior, and he’d been promoted.

This Scarlett sitting here now, the 2.0 version, had physically filled out in the last decade, softening those sharp bones. Her blond hair had thickened and grown glossy, color warmed her skin, and the old terrors radiating from her eyes had vanished.

Now, he believed, her fears hadn’t gone anywhere, but had bonded with anger and embedded in sinew and bone. She’d remade herself into an artist, a businesswoman, and a volunteer who helped at a local recreation center where she’d just completed a mural. Current publicity and public images captured smiles, but a detectable distance blunted her gaze.

“I’ll call your lawyer soon,” he said.

Scarlett drank her water and dug her thumbnail into the Styrofoam cup. “I’m only talking to Luke Kane, Detective Dawson.”

“It could be a while. I’d hate for you to sit here any longer than necessary.”

The cup creaked as she tightened her fingers. “I was locked in a basement for eighty-eight days, remember? You’ll have to try harder to intimidate me.”

He glanced at his watch, struggling to hide his rising frustration. “Scarlett, let me help you. I want to get this sorted out so you can go home. Talk to me.”

“Lawyer first, Detective Dawson.” Full lips flattened into a grim line, projecting experience well beyond her twenty-five years.

“Where do I start? We have footage of you speaking to your latest victim, and we’ve also confirmed you were one of the last people to see her alive. You also stalked and kidnapped a second woman. You’d have killed her if you’d not been stopped.”

She sat silent, barely breathing.

“And I can also link you to the human remains found entombed in a wall.” He leaned forward, his knees less than an inch from hers. “What set you off? Why call in the location of the first body that’s been hidden for a decade? Why kill again after all these years?”

She exhaled slowly, her face remaining a blank mask.

He sat back, refusing to acknowledge the frustration elbowing his gut. He lowered his voice and softened the tone. “Tell me about Della.” He knew Della was a trigger point for Scarlett, their alleged relationship an open wound. “Tell me how she hurt you.”

She settled back in the chair, her face cool and emotionless. “Not talking.”

“You and me have history, Scarlett. You don’t want another cop handling your case. I’ve seen you at your worst. Others won’t understand you like I do.”

“You understand me?” Bitter amusement vibrated under the words.

The first threats of anger. Progress. “We must talk, Scarlett. You helped kill a woman, murdered another, and tried to suffocate a third. You put a cop in the hospital with several vicious stab wounds. You called that officer Della multiple times. And this isn’t the first time you’ve confused a woman with this Della.”

Scarlett’s fingernail dug into the cup.

Dawson didn’t focus on the dead women but the one currently in surgery. Scarlett’s latest version of Della had elicited so much anger and rage, she’d attacked her with a knife. “Nineteen stiches. Your knife left a nasty gash on your victim’s neck and chest. The doctor said a few more centimeters to the left and you’d have severed her carotid artery. If she’d bled to death, you would be facing another murder charge.”

The cup creaked again.

He’d sat across from hardened criminals in this room. Gangbangers, drug dealers, and men who’d strangled their baby mamas to death. Some protested their innocence. Some tried to look bored or indignant when he accused them of attempted murder. Some cried. Scarlett barely blinked.

“I was there when the van crashed a decade ago. I shot and killed Tanner Reed when he drew on me. I helped pull you from the wreckage,” he said. “I’m on your side.”

She inhaled and exhaled slowly.

“Breaks my heart when I think about pulling you out of that torn metal. What happened to you in that basement should never have happened to any person.”

Counselors he’d consulted in the early-morning hours said she managed the old traumas by disassociating. Quiet. Distant. In her own world. This was how she coped. The consultant had underlined Detached several times.

“Were you always like this?” he asked. “Withdrawn, I mean? As a girl, were you outgoing?”

“You want to talk about my middle school years?” Bitterness pirouetted with amusement.

“I want to start a dialogue with you. I want to help you.”

“Then call my lawyer.”

“At some point you and I are going to have to talk, Scarlett. You need to tell me what you know.”

How did you scare someone who’d been tortured by the devil?

Dawson’s fifteen years in the department had armed him with tricks and tactics. Fighting every urge to rail at her, he leaned on his patience. “When did you first meet Officer Margo Larsen?”

She moistened her lips. “This information for the case or your own personal reference, Detective?”

He almost protested, then slid back behind a blank stare. “What does that mean?”

“You know.” A smile tipped the edges of her lips before she closed her eyes, released the cup, and drew in a deep breath. The muscles in her arms and hands eased, shedding the tension. She’d turned the tables.

“When did you decide to stalk Margo Larsen?” He shifted back to offense. “I’ve seen the portrait you left for her in her apartment. Odd.”

Scarlett blinked. “Her name isn’t Margo. It’s Della.”

“She’s Officer Margo Larsen.”

“When did you start screwing Della? Did you find her, or did she find you? What itch do you have that she scratched?”

“What’s that mean?”

“Della found me. Her smile was so bright, it banished all my fears and worries. That smile lured me into Tanner Reed’s van. That smile ruined my life.”

“Margo Larsen isn’t Della.”

“You’re wrong. She’s Della, and she’s come back for me.”

The House Beyond the Dunes

The House Beyond the Dunes

Mary Burton, The House Beyond the Dunes Cover

The House Beyond the Dunes

Buy it Now, Read it Sep 9, 2023

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A tragic accident or something more sinister? A woman’s buried memories put her life at risk in a novel of shattering psychological suspense by New York Times bestselling author Mary Burton.

Lane McCord wakes up in a hospital having survived a near-fatal fall at a North Carolina beach cottage. Her boyfriend, Kyle, wasn’t so lucky. A senseless tragedy on their first romantic getaway. All Lane remembers is lying at the bottom of the stairs in Kyle’s pooling blood.

Confused and grieving, Lane plans to return to the cottage, collect her personal belongings, and get out. Until a winter rainstorm leaves her stranded and vulnerable, but not alone. A concerned neighbor, who claims he heard a violent argument before the accident, has come out of the storm. So has a suspicious detective on the trail of a missing woman, whose diary deepens the mystery—and raises more questions that fill Lane with dread.

How well did she know Kyle? How well does she know herself? What really happened at the cottage on the beach? And when the answers come, who can Lane trust to get out of this waking nightmare alive?

The House Beyond the Dunes Excerpt

Chapter One
Friday, December 29, 2023
Norfolk, Virginia
7:00 p.m.
The fall began with a small slip on a marble step. Any other time, I’d have caught myself, adjusted, and found a way to hold steady. But not this time.
That misstep sent both of us tumbling down twenty-one stairs. Us. Kyle and I weren’t really an us. We’d known each other three and a half weeks, technically twenty-five days.
He’d first approached me in the coffee shop I manage. I was refilling the whole milk and creamer containers at the self-serve station when he slid in beside me. The soft scent of his aftershave snagged my attention. Sandalwood. He said something charming. I thought he was talking to someone else. But his gaze pinned me. I was flattered, and even blushed.
Almost immediately, the floodgates between us opened. He began showering me with enchanting texts, fragrant flowers, and mouthwatering kisses. He didn’t push sex, and I was wooed by his patience. In a few short weeks, we were on the path to something.
This weekend was supposed to be our big, romantic beach getaway. Our first sleepover. We were going to ring in the New Year alone, wrapped in each other’s arms. A big step toward figuring out if this thing between us might be real. So much anticipation. Excitement. I’ve no free time between school and managing the coffee shop, so for Kyle to have lured me away for a long weekend was saying something.
However, within an hour of arriving at his glittering North Carolina cottage overlooking the dunes of the northern Outer Banks and the Atlantic Ocean, we fell. The weight of our bodies sent us hurtling through the air so fast, adrenaline didn’t catch up until the last microsecond, when we hit the marble floor.
Now I’m in the hospital, my left hip is banged up and bruised, and my body is so stiff, it’s hard to turn my head to the right. I feel as if I’ve gone three rounds with a boxer. But my injuries aren’t critical. I’ll heal.
Kyle wasn’t so lucky.
He’s dead.
“You’re fortunate to be alive.” Dr. Jackson sounds cheerful, a little too upbeat, as he closes the curtain to my room. He’s tall, lean, and keeps his hair cut short. Dark circles smudge under his eyes. Emergency room sounds swirl around us. Gurneys. Machines beeping. Hushed conversations.
I shift, doing my best to sit up. The muscles in my gut and along my ribs scream in protest. The guy I liked is dead, and I can barely move without my body crying. I was supposed to be sipping wine while sitting in a hot tub with Kyle, making out, and taking another step toward us. “Yes, lucky.”
Dr. Jackson holds a light up to my eyes and waves it over my pupils. I stiffen. “Just look at the light.”
“How long have I been here?” I ask.
“About six hours.”
“How did I get here?”
“You were airlifted from the Outer Banks to Norfolk.”
The Outer Banks is a 170-mile barrier island chain, and Kyle’s house is in the northernmost section, tucked against the Virginia line.
As the crow flies, Kyle’s cottage is thirty minutes from Norfolk, where I live. But there’s no quick way to get from here to there. This remote stretch of land requires a trip around Norfolk’s beltway, followed by a few secondary highways in North Carolina, crossing the three-mile-long Wright Memorial Bridge, and then another twenty-mile drive north. All that travel is rewarded with an eleven-mile four-wheel drive on an untamed beach. Basically, over the river and through the woods takes two and a half hours.
Memories of the trip and the house are vague. My mind is trapped in a loop, replaying the crack of Kyle’s skull on marble, the pool of his blood oozing toward me, and the pain rocketing through my body.
I’m only vaguely aware of a man trying to rouse me and then being placed on a stretcher. I was out cold during the med flight ride to Norfolk. Most of this entire day tangles like a bad dream.
“Kyle is really dead?” I ask.
“Yes,” Dr. Jackson says. “He was pronounced dead at the scene.”
I brace for a rush of sadness. Grief, despondency, and sorrow are all natural responses for someone who’s lost the other half of a potential us.
Kyle and I weren’t married or even sleeping together, but we’d had a connection. I didn’t fully understand what tethered us so tightly, but it had been very real. Yet no emotions charge or encircle me. There’s only numbness. Must be shock.
“Are you taking any medications?” Dr. Jackson asks.
“For sleepwalking. I can’t remember the name.”
“That might explain the drugs we found in your system.”
“What drugs?”
“A sedative.”
“I don’t take anything other than the pills to hold off the sleepwalking.”
“Okay.” He regards me and then says, “The head scan tells me you suffered no damage to your brain or spine, which is excellent news. But I’d like to do an MRI of your left hip. X-rays tell me it’s not broken, but I suspect you’ve torn muscles or tendons, or maybe separated the labrum.”
My head is good. A win. “What’s a labrum?”
Dr. Jackson tucks his penlight in his front pocket and runs calloused hands up and down my neck. I brace. “It’s the cartilage cushioning the hip joint. Any pain in the neck?”
“A little stiff, but okay.” I angle my neck away from him and feel the muscles resisting. “The hip aches.”
Dr. Jackson nods. “Then we should do the MRI.”
I look around the curtained-off emergency room cubicle. How much is all this going to cost me? “MRIs are expensive.”
“Clear images give me a good look inside your body. You don’t want to risk more damage.”
As I shift, the back folds of my hospital gown open, and a cold breeze fingers up my spine. I can live with a stiff hip, which in all likelihood just needs rest. “My head is good, right?”
Dr. Jackson sighs. “Yes. But the hip correlates with long-term mobility.”
“I’ll rest it. See how it goes. If it’s an issue, I’ll call you. When can I leave the hospital? I’ll take it easy. Take aspirin. Ice, heat, ice. Chill out.” This place is suffocating, and I want to go home, where I’ll try not to think about the fall, the sound of Kyle’s head exploding, or sticky, warm blood.
Dr. Jackson shakes his head. “I’d like to admit you overnight for observation.”
“No,” I insist. “I’d rather be in my own bed. It’s paid for.”
His brow furrows. “Do you have insurance?”
“I do if you can call it that. My plan is stitched together with high copays and ridiculous deductibles. I’ll take a pass on the tests and the overnight.”
“I don’t advise this, Ms. McCord,” Dr. Jackson says carefully.
“I get it. Liability. Lawyers. I’ll sign whatever I need to.” I shift, wince. Seven hours ago, Kyle and I were driving up the beach toward his house. The day was warm, the sun bright, and the ocean calm. I was nervous, in an excited kind of way.
Now Kyle’s blood smears my arm. “Are you sure about Kyle?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.” He clears his throat. “What do you remember?”
“Arriving at the cottage.” It’s a stunning place and unexpectedly elegant on such a remote stretch of beach. Vaulted ceilings, large plush couches, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the dunes and ocean, white granite kitchen counters, dazzling stainless-steel appliances, and modern art on the walls. Fresh red roses filled a crystal vase on the living room coffee table. I remember almost teasing it was a no-one-can-hear-you-scream kind of place but thought better of the joke. My dark sense of humor is best reserved for people who’ve known me more than three and a half weeks.
“The EMTs responded to the house at one fifteen p.m. today. When did you arrive at the cottage?”
“About noon. I don’t remember much after we arrived.”
Doubts crease his brow. “It’s okay. Those memories should come back in time.”
I know better than anyone, the power of positive thinking is faulty at best. “I want to leave. Where are my clothes, purse, and phone?”
“I really would like you to stay overnight for observation.”
“No.” Panic constricts my chest. “I hate hospitals.”
“Most people do.”
I sit up straighter, wince as my hip protests. My head is clear. “I’ll call if something goes wrong.”
Dr. Jackson’s frown deepens as he shakes his head. “I’m going to hold you to that, Lane.”
I cross my chest. Hope not to die. “Promise.”
“Any signs of dizziness, nausea, or headaches, call me. No running, cycling, or jumping. If you don’t heed my advice, you’ll really screw up your hip and be in surgery by Valentine’s Day.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice.” A few days ago, I’d toyed with spending Valentine’s Day with Kyle. He might have come out of nowhere, but our relationship was headed somewhere. He was so into me. And now he’s dead.
“Are you sure you’re feeling okay?” Dr. Jackson asks.
“I’m fine, Doctor.” In an hour, Dr. Jackson will have seen five or six more patients, and I’ll recede into his distant memory. I’ll enter the hospital’s digital archives and reside alongside my foster care records, student loan debt accounts, college transcripts, and credit card scores. I’ve lived between the cracks all my life, and I’m comfortable with obscurity. “I just need to get out of here.”
“I’ll send in someone from administration to help you check out.”
I glance over the side rails to a small table outfitted with a phone. “Where are my purse and clothes? My pills are in my purse. I’ll show you the prescription bottle.”
“Let me check with the nurse.” He’s trying to care, but it won’t last long. At least I have his attention right now. “I’ll be right back.”
“Great. Thanks.” I lean my head back against the pillow. I breathe in deeply and slowly exhale. I feel light-headed. This small room feels as if it’s shrinking by the moment, and the hospital’s antiseptic smell makes deep breathing unsatisfying.
When I close my eyes, I hear the pop of Kyle’s skull as it splits like a melon. My stomach tumbles, and I think I’m going to get sick. The bathroom is across the room, but I’m hooked up to an IV, and my hip cries every time I move. Please, I cannot get sick. They’ll never let me out of here if I barf.
The curtain opens and closes, and Dr. Jackson reappears. “The nurse said your purse didn’t come with you.”
“What do you mean it didn’t come with me?” It contains my cell, my medications, and basically my life.
“The nurse contacted the EMTs, and they said your belongings were left behind at the beach house.”
“Are they still there?” I shift and grimace. “I remember setting my overnight bag and purse by the bed in the main bedroom.”
“The EMTs say the house was closed up,” Dr. Jackson says. “It must still be where you left it.”
Shit. I must get my phone and the pills that keep my insomnia and sleepwalking in check. “Where are my clothes?”
“The nurses bagged them. I understand they were badly stained. We also had to cut your pants off to examine your hip.”
“Stained with blood,” I say more to myself. My hands tremble. Blood stains forever, right?
“Let me talk to the nurse. She can get you a set of scrubs.”
“That’s not necessary. I’ll call my neighbor.” I reach for the hospital phone.
“No running or long walks at all, Lane,” he warns. “I’m serious. Take it easy for a few months, or that small rip will go full-blown and will require surgery.”
“I’m not doing surgery.” The idea of a surgeon’s blade cutting my skin terrifies me.
“Then take care of yourself. Call me if you need me. I can also put you in touch with a psychologist.”
Kyle was a psychologist. I’m also a semester away from being one. “Thanks.”
He leaves, and I dial my next-door neighbor Shelly’s landline. I remember it because it’s only two digits higher than my phone number when I was a kid. She’s not going to recognize the hospital number and won’t answer, but she has an old-school answering machine. The phone rings six times before the machine picks up. “This is Shelly. Don’t leave a message.”
“Shelly, this is Lane. I’m in the hospital. I need you to go by my place, use your spare key, and get a few things.” I rattle off a list and tell her where I am.
I hang up, shift my weight off my left hip, and lie back on the bed. My body aches, and I still can’t believe Kyle is gone. Kyle. Is. Dead. I should be doing something for him. Calling someone. But my eyes drift closed.


The House Beyond the Dunes Reviews

Coming Soon!

The Lies I Told

The Lies I Told

The Lies I Told Cover

Mary Burton’s THE LIES I TOLD (August 2, 2022) was nominated by the 2023 International Thriller Writers for Best Paperback Original.

Buy it Now, Read it Aug 2, 2022

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books A Million | Indiebound

For a woman obsessed and a killer in her shadow, remembering the past becomes a mind game in a novel of psychological suspense by New York Times bestselling author Mary Burton.

Twin sisters Marisa and Clare Stockton were sixteen when Clare’s body was found in Virginia’s James River. No arrests were made. Fourteen years later, Marisa’s friends and dedicated career as a photographer help her to cope with the open wound of the past. But Marisa still feels the hurt—and the unsolved murder isn’t the only thing haunting her.

A recent car crash has erased ten days of Marisa’s memories—a black hole leading up to the accident that’s left her disoriented. Every text and phone call from that crucial missing time has vanished, along with her phone. A photograph she took of the river has disappeared. A new neighbor Marisa believes she knows introduces himself as if he were a stranger. And there’s the growing fear that her near-fatal accident was no accident at all. As dreams of Clare and nightmares of the crash begin to converge, so do two disturbing puzzles fourteen years apart.

Putting the pieces together could be fatal. As she struggles to remember everything, Marisa closes in on a killer—without realizing that he’s already closed in on her.

The Lies I Told Excerpt

The Lies I Told Excerpt


Friday, January 7, 2022
Richmond, Virginia

The dead were always watching. And they did speak to us, though we rarely noticed.

Normally, the dead didn’t bother me, but the night was cold, dark, and raining, and I was anxious as I gripped a coiled art show flyer and got out of the Uber. A light drizzle fell, and an uneasiness had piggybacked onto my bones with the cold. I was tempted to go home and ignore you. Sane men don’t chase the dead.

But when it comes to you, I’m not reasonable—never have been. So I returned to J.J.’s Pub, a corner, brick building with tall display windows and crimson-red front doors. Inside the vestibule, I unrolled the handbill, coiled tighter than a clock spring, and confirmed that I’d not lost my mind. You were still staring, smiling.

Your red hair swooped around your shoulders like a curtain and framed a face as pale as ivory. Once you had reminded me of an Irish sprite, plucked straight out of Dublin, but now I saw you were Persephone, back from the underworld.

Your gaze held me, reached out, and the longer I studied the ironic humor swimming in those sapphire eyes, the more I remembered our intimate history and shared losses.

A rational mind wouldn’t be lured by the dead or revisit a dangerous past. Turn, leave, and slam the door shut on yesterday.

But this pull between us transcends life and death. And this time I was not going to repeat old mistakes. The past doesn’t have to equal the future. Eyes forward.

I pushed through the bar’s doors, chased in by cold air that lingered at my heels, and shook off raindrops dripping from my jacket. The sounds of piped jazz horns mingled with warmth, laughter, and the smells of beer and french fries. I wasn’t here for the art, food, ambience, or company. Just for you. I needed to see if you were really you. Honestly, I hoped you weren’t, that it was a mistake. I’d spent too many years imagining your face, your smile, the way your eyes closed forever so long ago. I was afraid seeing a knockoff version would only taint my memories. I hoped whoever you were, you’d be ugly, fat, and easy to forget.

The bar was divided into two sections: the main room filled with round café tables and then, off to the side, a sort of annex

There was no one in the main room, but the smaller room held at least a dozen people, and laughter and conversation drifted from it.

J.J.’s Pub’s back room, the gallery tonight, was certainly not Met worthy. A lesser artist might have turned down the space and waited for a better opportunity. But not you. You wanted the world to see the images that rattled in your mind and haunted me.

Outside the room was a sign that read Exhibit. Your picture was not on it. Disappointed, I wondered whether the dead were playing tricks with me again. They’d done this so often that I usually recognized their trickery. I should have just left, but I was still too curious. Please be old and gray. The young and youthful version of you was enshrined in my memory, and I wanted to keep it that way.

A sane man . . .
I brushed the last of the raindrops off my coat and moved toward the room. The space was small, with a low ceiling pitted with pot lights spilling pools of light onto a black-and-white tiled floor. There were no small tables in this space, and the chairs rimmed one wall. This setup gave any visitor a clear view of two dozen black-and-white pictures hanging on the walls, ghosted by the faint impressions of artwork that had hung here before.
On a round table by the door was another flyer, featuring several more images from your show. A makeshift catalog of sorts. The photos were moody, and the shades of gray captured the jagged rocks of the James River. A fast current splashed ragged, jutting boulders, and the combined effect suggested trouble and violence.

The last memory I held of you was on that rocky shoreline, and it still warmed me. You were laughing, a bit drunk, wild eyed, and begging me to kiss you. I still dream of pressing your body against the warm hood of my car on that cold day. Your body was so responsive, eager, desperate almost.

A laugh rose above the din of conversation, and it jerked me back to now. I looked over, and I saw you standing with your back to the wall as you talked to two men. Your smile was as bright as I remembered. Your hair remained a tumble of red curls, and a hint of freckles still sprinkled your nose. A black V-neck blouse dipped between full breasts and skimmed a flat belly before vanishing into faded jeans hugging narrow hips.
I stared, wondering whether you were real. The dead are clever and can play with a man’s mind. They don’t care about feelings or the living’s need to get on with their lives. It’s jealousy, I suppose: they can’t live, so neither can you.

But as you moved among the living, it was clear they all saw you. They talked to you, laughed, smiled. You weren’t a figment of my imagination. You were very real. Perfect.

Tightness clutched my chest as I twisted the rolled flyer into a tighter spiral. I felt suddenly both thrilled and sorry I had come. My grainy memories, replayed too often, were now faded and lackluster. Suddenly they wouldn’t do anymore. Seeing you in the flesh had made them obsolete.

I’d never expected to see you again, beyond dreams and fantasies. And yet here you were, flesh and blood, twenty feet away. My system heated as my thoughts raced and collided. An overload was coming. Never a good thing. I pivoted toward the door.

Outside, I unfurled the paper and looked at the grainy image of your face. I’d thought I had never forgotten one detail about you. But now I saw time had degraded my memory. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz had jumped from black and white to Technicolor.

The Lies I Told Reviews

“Grabbed my attention!”

Robin (Goodreads)

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Don’t Look Now

Don’t Look Now

Mary Burton, Don't Look Now Cover

Don’t Look Now

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A homicide detective in the dark. A serial killer on the loose. Both have their obsessions in a nerve-twisting novel of suspense by New York Times bestselling author Mary Burton.

Austin homicide detective Jordan Poe is hunting a serial killer she fears is the same man who assaulted her sister, Avery, two years ago. The details line up: the victims are the same age, same type, dead by the same grim MO. Luckily Avery survived. But the terrible memories linger, making Jordan more determined than ever to stop this monster in his tracks.
Texas Ranger Carter Spencer isn’t one to poach on a detective’s territory. Yet no matter how resentful a capable lone wolf like Jordan is, when she is attacked at a third crime scene and suffers a trauma that leaves her with limited vision, it’s up to Carter to help Jordan navigate a world she no longer recognizes. He needs her instinct, her experience, and her fearless resolve to crack this case. A case that’s about to get even darker.

A stranger is watching. He’s closing in on his ultimate prey. And no one but the killer can see what’s coming.

Don't Look Now Excerpt

Chapter 1

Tuesday, March 30
10:00 p.m.

The call from dispatch was a jolt to homicide detective Jordan Poe’s system. After a fifteen-hour shift, she had arrived home, eaten a quick dinner, and settled on the couch to watch a movie. She had immediately fallen asleep.
Now, as she bolted up to the shrill ring, she shook off the sleep and reached for her phone. “Detective Poe.”
“Detective, a woman’s body has been found in Southeast Austin.” Dispatch rattled off familiar cross streets and an address less than ten blocks from her house.
“Tell me.” Jordan cleared her throat as she moved toward the kitchen through her darkened house, illuminated by only the television screen’s light.
She listened patiently as the dispatcher told her about the discovery of a woman’s body. No details about manner of death, but the body was in an advanced state of decomposition. Translation: the smell would saturate anything porous that came within fifteen feet. Full PPE was suggested.
She made a strong pot of coffee, and as it brewed, she brushed her hair, refashioned it into a bun, and splashed water on her face. Ten minutes later, coffee in hand, she pushed out of her front door, wearing yesterday’s clothes. She slid behind the wheel of her SUV, parked in a small gravel driveway by her bungalow. She had inherited the one-story, fifteen-hundred-square-foot house from her mother twelve years ago, and she had spent a lot of that time renovating it. Many of the homes on her block still had their original owners and had not been updated. But the rush of newcomers to Texas had discovered the East Austin neighborhood with wooded lots, and it was a matter of time before the elderly residents sold.
When she arrived on the scene ten minutes later, she had drained her coffee and convinced herself she was not exhausted.
The one-level ranch was painted a mint green. It was surrounded by a chain-link fence encircling a yard filled with tall weeds. Across the street was a heavily wooded empty lot that had turned into a dumping ground filled with discarded tires, an old stove, and piles of brush.
Four cop cars were parked along the house’s curb, their blue lights flashing in the darkness. A forensic van was parked in the short driveway, and two techs were setting up a tent and table. Normally the techs used tents to shield them from the hot Texas sun, and seeing as the sun had nine more hours before showtime, the setup told her they expected to be here well into tomorrow.
Before her mom, little sister, and she had moved to Austin, they had lived in Boston. She remembered the snow had come up to her waist on her sixteenth birthday, and the January air was so cold the windchill drove the temperatures below freezing. That was the day her mother had mumbled something about “being done with this shit,” and the three of them had packed the family’s blue Subaru and driven to Austin.
The day’s growing heat brought her back to the moment. She noticed there were still no reporters on the scene yet, and she was relieved. Crime in this area was standard, but sooner or later the press would catch on and this would all get more chaotic.
She rose up out of her vehicle, grateful to stretch her long, stiff legs. She was craving a good workout, but that was going to have to wait.
Jordan’s low-heeled boots, dusted with dirt from yesterday’s crime scene, crunched against the freshly graveled street as she moved toward the back of her SUV and opened the hatch.
Shrugging off her jean jacket, she tugged on the lightweight PPE suit over a black T-shirt and worn jeans banded by a leather belt. Next it was shoe coverings and latex gloves.
She looked up at the ramshackle ranch. A sign in the front window indicated it was marked for remodeling by a developer who had done dozens of projects in the area over the last year. No doubt, the landowner hoped to sell the property to a newly relocated young professional willing to pay a premium.
A couple of forensic technicians wrestled a large light up the two concrete front stairs and into the house. After a moment, they reappeared, faces grim as one plugged a long extension cord into a generator. A press of a button and the generator jolted to life, and the interior of the house lit up.
A deputy moved toward her. He was tall, lean, a bit gangly, but he had the look of a guy who would fill out.
She guessed he was in his mid-twenties.
“Detective Poe?” he asked.
“That’s right. And you are?” Hints of her Boston accent drew out the last word.
“Officer Wilcox.” They shook hands. “I was first on the scene.” His face was stoic, but his fingers flexed involuntarily. Easy to control reactions on the face, but there was always another body part that gave the nerves away.
First seconds on a scene were precarious and tense. And if you should be so unlucky as to come across a suicide, murder, or infant death, the emotional gut punch was inevitable. “When did you arrive?”
“Two hours ago. The renovation crew chief called it in. He’s still in his truck. Not happy about having to wait for a detective.”
“We all could think of better things to do, including the victim.”
A slight smile tweaked his lips. “That’s for sure. The crew chief figured the dead person was a squatter or drug addict who had died. It’s not rare in this area.”
“I was told the victim is female.”
“That’s right.”
“Any idea of the cause of death?”
“Offhand, I’d say suffocation. But who knows? It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen.” He shifted his feet and flexed his fingers.
“How long have you been on the job?” she asked.
“A year.”
This scene likely was now in the officer’s Book of Firsts. All cops had a book like that, and no matter how full it got, there was always room for a new horror. “Okay. Let me have a look.”
“Want me to come with you?” Officer Wilcox asked.
“Stay in the yard. Fewer people in the house, the better.”
His relief was palpable. “Understood.”
She slid her mask over her face and crossed the gravel driveway, and as she climbed the two front porch steps, the scent of decomposition hit her hard. She stopped, raised her hand to her nose.
“Jesus,” she muttered. Her first year on the job, she had swabbed Vicks under her nose but learned menthol did not conceal rot. These days, she sucked it up, knowing the brain would cancel out the smell after a few minutes.
“Detective Poe!”
She turned toward Andy Lucas, the senior forensic technician in the department. He was short, had a round face and belly, and his ink-black hair showed no signs of graying despite his recent fiftieth birthday.
“When you get inside, follow the yellow cones to the body. There’s a lot of dust in that room, so I have a prayer of getting a shoe impression.”
“Roger that.”
“Hey, and thanks for the case of beer,” Lucas said.
“A man only turns fifty once.”
“Thank God,” he joked. “Took me days to get over the surprise party.”
She had helped host the event, which was just as much a department morale booster as it was a celebration of Lucas’s half-century milestone. Because she did not drink, she had left early, but the stories, some of which were pretty damn funny, still circulated two weeks later.
She stepped over the extension cord, walked heel to toe beside the yellow cones, which led her into the small main room. Artificial light shone on faded rose wallpaper peeling off old shiplap, four barred broken windows, and clumps of hay nestled in shadowed corners.
She moved toward the illuminated area and the victim. Female, with a slight frame, and naked, she was wrapped in a thick layer of plastic. Her hands were bound, and there appeared to be a bag over her head and a gag in her mouth.
The manner of death stirred memories Jordan had worked hard to forget. Closing her eyes, she drew air into her lungs, her desire to avoid the stench overruled by the need to breathe fully. Tight bands of anxiety squeezed her chest. She closed her eyes, pushing away the past and allowing her mind to settle. This was now. Not two years ago. And she had nothing to worry about.
Slowly, her thoughts collected, and she opened her eyes. Chalk up another experience for her Book of Firsts.
As she did at all fatality scenes, she mentally reclassified the dead person from Human to Evidence. This woman could no longer speak, but her body still might have secrets to share.
The body was badly decayed. Gases had already built up in the belly and burst through the skin, leaving a real oozing mess encased in the plastic. The covering around the body had slowed the bugs attracted to decomposing flesh, but a few had found a small opening and begun nature’s work. Another two weeks and there would not have been much to find.
The plastic bag over the victim’s head was secured in place with a thin drawstring tied in a double-knotted bow.
Jordan had responded to a couple of accidental autoerotic asphyxiation deaths. The people who played this dangerous game cut off oxygen to the brain, sexually stimulated their bodies, and then, seconds before orgasm, released the bag or neck restraints. The rush of oxygen was supposed to heighten the pleasure, but the trick was to remove the bag or rope in time. In both prior, unrelated cases, the victims had been men. One had worn a belt around his neck, whereas the other had chosen a thin cord. Each had passed out before the big O and suffocated to death.
Even if this woman had started this dangerous trek willingly, it was clear she had not been alone at the time of her death. Had the dead woman’s sex partner panicked and wrapped and dumped the body?
At this stage it was impossible to tell the victim’s ethnicity. Her skin appeared to be brown, but Jordan knew that could be from decomposition. Her hair had been icy blond, but the color looked as if it could be found on any drugstore shelf.
Age was another detail that was hard to call. But if Jordan had to guess, she would have said the victim was young.
Footsteps behind her had her turning to see Andy and the other tech, Marsha Brown, enter the room. In full PPE, they looked more alien than human.
“We’d like to get started on the footprints,” Andy said. “They’ll be the first ruined.”
“Sure, go ahead,” Jordan said.
“Are you sticking around?” Andy asked.
“Just standing back and observing.”
As Jordan backtracked her steps to the front door, she imagined other motives behind this killing. With the border 220 miles away, human trafficking was common here. Though coyotes raped and sometimes killed their victims, they generally discarded the bodies on a barren patch of earth in the open sun. Some might take the time to cover the remains with a little dirt or brush, but she had never seen any wrappings this elaborate. Drug dealers and pimps were not strangers to violence, but they rarely went to such lengths with their dead, unless they were sending a message.
The house was marked for renovation, so whoever had left Jane Doe here had known she would be found eventually. Maybe he wanted her found. Maybe it was a sign of misguided respect or contrition for what he had done. Maybe it was a message to someone. Or maybe he simply wanted his work displayed.
But until she could find out more about the victim’s identity, any stab at motive would be conjecture.
Her attention was drawn back to the bound hands tied with precise, tight knots. Like the drawstring, they were double knotted.
Jordan guessed the killer had played with the tension on the bag before he killed her. How many times had he brought her up to the point of death and then carefully loosened the drawstring so she could suck in enough oxygen to stay alive? Had she been a willing participant or a victim? Jordan had seen a lot of crazy shit over the years, but her money was on murder.
Had she been the killer’s first victim? Had he been playing out this erotic scenario for months—if not years? The thick plastic wrap and packing tape, even finding this location, required planning. Forethought. Jordan remembered the woman she had found bound, gagged, and struggling to breathe two years ago, when she’d still been a patrol officer. She’d saved that one, but she had been minutes away from losing her.
“Christ,” she muttered. “What do the footprints look like, Andy?” she asked. “Any idea how many sets?”
“From what I can see, there’re the deputy’s prints as well as another set.”
“Only one other?”
“Yep. The contractor smelled the decomposition and didn’t enter the house.”
“We can assume they are the killer’s prints, and he likely carried her in here?” Jordan asked.
“She’s barefoot and has small feet. I don’t see any prints like that.” Andy killed the big light, and they were plunged into darkness before he shined his flashlight over the dusty floor. Shadowed footprints appeared. “We lost a lot of the killer’s initial foot strikes near the body, but in the corners and around the perimeter we have traces of his footsteps. Lucky for us the place has been abandoned for a while, and the dust was thick.”
Picturing the scene, she imagined a killer carrying in his unconscious victim. That gave him time to get his plastic, tape, and whatever other toys he had brought to this party. By the time the victim had woken up, she would have been naked and immobilized with rope and perhaps under the weight of his body. How long had her struggles to live lasted? Minutes? Hours? Days? For the victim, time must have stretched for an eternity.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Jordan said. “The medical examiner can take the body.”
“Right. Should have a report in a few days, week at the most.”
Tightness fisted in Jordan’s chest as she stepped onto the porch. The eyes of the four other deputies settled on her. How many bets had been placed on the newest homicide detective’s reaction? She squared her shoulders and slowly walked down the steps and crossed to the forensic van.
She wanted to rip off the PPE and scrub the stench off her. Suddenly, the protective gear reminded her of the plastic encasing the dead woman. But again, she moved slowly, drawing her gaze up to the nearly full moon before she removed her mask. There were enough women in Texas law enforcement, so she was not an anomaly, but freaking out at a crime scene earned any officer a black mark, regardless of gender.
She dumped the gloves and booties, and then the suit, in the disposal bin. There was no breeze to cool her skin, but with the outer layer shed, she felt lighter.
As she crossed back to her vehicle, she saw Officer Wilcox eyeing her. It was a matter of time before he churned up the courage and asked whatever question was on his mind.
She kept moving, opened the back of her SUV, washed her hands with sanitizer, and from a cooler grabbed a bottle of water as Officer Wilcox approached. She handed the first bottle to him and took a second for herself.
She twisted the water bottle’s top open. “What’s on your mind, Officer?”
“I’ve seen shootings and car accidents. But nothing like that.” Absently, he scraped the water bottle label with his thumb. “This killer took pleasure in what he did.”
“You’re right. Some kill for sport, Officer.” As he drew in a breath and nodded slowly, she added, “It takes planning to find the woman, this location, and assemble the supplies.” She raised the bottle to her lips, savoring the cool liquid in her mouth. “Even if the killing was meant to be a lesson, this killer enjoyed his work.”

Don't Look Now Reviews

“With plenty of possible suspects, Burton’s (Never Look Back) latest will appeal to readers who want light romance and heavy suspense.” Library Journal

Near You

Near You

Mary Burton, Near You Cover

Near You

Available Now:

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In a scorching novel of obsession and revenge, New York Times bestselling author Mary Burton ignites fear in the heart of a woman targeted by a killer who knows her secrets.

Forensic psychologist and single mother Ann Bailey has joined forces with Montana Highway Patrol officer Bryce McCabe. An expert in untangling the motives of depraved minds, Ann is tasked to help solve the mystery of two murdered women doused with gasoline and set aflame.

It’s not hard for Ann to be reminded of the charismatic Elijah Weston, who served a decade in prison for arson—a crime that nearly cost Ann her life. Elijah may have been exonerated, but the connection to these rage killings is impossible for Ann to ignore. One of the victims has been identified as an obsessed Elijah groupie. Elijah has obsessions, too. Ever since Ann returned to town, he can’t take his eyes off her. And as a mother with a secret, she’s the perfect victim for an infatuated psychopath.

The deeper Ann and Bryce’s investigation goes, the nearer they get to each other and to danger. After another murder hits close to home, Ann fears a clue is hidden in her own past. Only one thing terrifies her more than the reveal of her long-held secret. It’s that the secret itself has put Ann into a killer’s line of fire.

Near You Excerpt

Chapter One

Forty miles east of Missoula, Montana
Wednesday, August 18
7:15 a.m.

When Sergeant Bryce McCabe of the Montana Highway Patrol received the call from the local sheriff in Deer Lodge County, he was at his ranch, stringing barbed wire along a hundred-yard stretch of pastureland. He hoped to be stocking cattle by next spring, but days off had been rare in the last few months, so progress was slow. The cattle might have to wait another year or two.
He tugged off his work gloves as he cradled the phone between his head and shoulder. “Bryce McCabe.”
“Bryce, this is Sheriff Harry Wexler.” Anxiety sharpened the lawman’s voice. “I need your help with a case.”
Bryce dug his bandanna from his rear pocket and rubbed the sweat from the back of his neck. “What do you have, Sheriff?”
“Homicide. And as much as I’d like to tell you about it, seeing is believing.” Wexler was a steady-as-she-goes kind of lawman, and for him to request assistance meant trouble.
“Is it like the last one?” Bryce asked.
“Seems so.”
Bryce shoved the bandanna back in his pocket. “I’ll be there in about an hour. Text the directions.”
“Will do. Thanks, Bryce.”
Bryce climbed into his ’86 Ford ranch pickup and drove the dirt-packed road to the homestead he and his brother, Dylan, now shared.
The two-story house was constructed of hand-hewn logs resting on a stone foundation and sealed with chinking wedged between seams joined by notched corners. A weather-rusted red tin roof arrowed to a sharp peak to keep hefty winter snows off load-bearing beams. The eastward-facing front porch was shaded by a ten-foot overhang and outfitted by two handmade rockers made of Lodgepole pine.
The house had been left to Bryce and Dylan by their late stepfather, Pops Jones, a former rodeo rider. Their mother had spent most of her life dragging her boys from job to job and town to town until she had hooked up with Pops. No one gave the union much hope, but as it turned out, Pops had been a real ray of sunshine for twelve-year-old Bryce and ten-year-old Dylan. And when their mother passed, the three had remained together on the rodeo circuit, wintering here at the cabin, until Bryce had turned eighteen and joined the marines. Dylan remained with Pops two more years and then followed his brother into the service.
Coordinated holidays were rare, but the brothers both made it to the ranch three Christmases ago and enjoyed the last holiday the old man would see on this earth. There had been a good bit of barbecuing, bourbon drinking, cigar smoking, and more than a few jokes about the lady friends Pops had juggled.
The house was not fancy by any stretch, but it was built solid, set on fifty acres of decent land chock-full of good memories.
As he got out of his truck, three old German shepherd dogs came around the side of the house. The tall gray one that looked more wolf than dog was Chase. He was eight. The black one beside him was Max, seven years old, and the smallest, Conan, was six. They were retired military service dogs with handlers who were either dead or unable to care for them.
When Dylan’s marine canine had been killed in an IED explosion in January, he had opted not to re-up. Shortly after he had separated from the marines and was preparing to return to Montana, his commander had approached him about Chase. Dylan had accepted responsibility for the dog without a second thought, and together they had moved back to the ranch. Word spread that Dylan had the space and fortitude to take military dogs, and Max and Conan had arrived by March.
Each animal eyed Bryce warily, and he was careful to keep his body language relaxed. The trio was acquainted with Bryce, but each had been chosen by the military because aggression came naturally. Best not to tempt their natural propensities or training.
“How’s it going, guys?” Bryce asked smoothly. He paused at the top step and let each sniff his hand. “See, we’re all still friends, right?”
When Bryce had been in Afghanistan a dozen years ago, a soldier in his platoon had found a puppy in one of the villages. Scrawny and tied to a stake in the ground, the pup had barked when he had seen Bryce and his men come into the village. His sergeant, a bear of a man, had pulled out a switchblade and cut the rope. One of the village elders had started yelling, and Bryce had offered him several MREs for the dog. A deal had been struck, and the mongrel, dubbed Buddy, was along for the ride.
Damn dog had turned out to be an island of sanity for the coming months. Almost none of the men could resist a smile when they saw Buddy trotting across the lot. When the time had come for the unit to ship stateside, Bryce had created military service canine paperwork for Buddy, who now lived somewhere in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains.
Dylan came around the side of the house with a toolbox in his hand. His eighteen years of service had embedded a deep sense of routine, and he still rose at four, ate his chow three times a day at the kitchen table, and spent the rest of his time working with the dogs or building the new barn, which he intended would be fully heated and insulated by winter.
“You’re back early,” Dylan said.
“Got called in. There’s a homicide,” Bryce said. “Need to take a quick shower and head over to Deer Lodge.”
“Anything I can do?” Dylan asked.
“Not really. If this case is like the one in Helena, it’ll be a long day, so I can’t say when I’ll be back.”
Dylan removed his hat and ran his hand over shorn dark hair. “Two is a pattern.”
“Time to call in the FBI?” Dylan’s tone turned suspicious, as it did when outsiders were tossed into the mix.
“Rather not have the feds involved, but I’ll have to see.”
“We got the ranch covered.”
Rusted front-door hinges squeaked as Bryce opened it. “I appreciate that. Nice having the company.”
“By the way,” Dylan said. “When you get back, there might be a new dog living here.”
Bryce paused. “Another one?”
“Her name is Venus. She’s a Malinois and has a reputation as a hard-ass. Unadoptable. A real bitch.”
Bryce shrugged. “The more the merrier.”
“Thanks, bro.”
It took Bryce less than twenty minutes to shower and change into clean jeans, a fresh T-shirt, and worn cowboy boots. He had left his suits at his Helena apartment because he had banked on having a full day or two off. Nevertheless, if he was heading toward the mountains near Anaconda, a suit would be more trouble than it was worth.
In his state-issued black SUV, he drove west on US 12 for thirty minutes before turning south on I-90 toward Anaconda. Wexler’s directions took him from the interstate to a series of progressively smaller roads. Sixty minutes after leaving the ranch, he spotted flares and the deputy’s car.
Bryce parked behind the marked vehicle, reached in the compartment between the seats, dug out his badge, and looped it around his neck.
The deputy looked barely out of high school. Tall and scrawny, he had a long, thin face, dark-brown eyes, and olive skin. Efforts to look solemn did not hide his edgy, amped-up energy.
“Sergeant Bryce, Sheriff Wexler is waiting for you,” the deputy said. “Follow the dirt road up the side of the mountain.”
Bryce angled his vehicle up the barely paved road around tire tracks marked off with yellow crime scene tape. He drove up the hillside, gravel crunching under his tires, as he eased toward a sharp turn that brought him to a dead end. The land around him was covered in a swath of blackened scrub grass swooping over the hill like an eagle’s wing.
Bryce parked and reached for his worn black cowboy hat on the passenger seat. Out of his truck, he settled it on his head and tugged the brim lower toward mirrored sunglasses. The wind carried persistent trails of smoke threaded with the scent of scorched flesh. He opened the back of his vehicle, grabbed a fresh set of latex gloves, and then walked beside the singed grass that had been drier than bone until yesterday’s soaking rain.
His gaze swept the hillside’s base toward defined tire tracks. If not for the rain, the marks would have been faint, and obtaining an impression would have been difficult. Had the killer realized he had left this critical piece of evidence behind?
When he approached the ridge, he looked out toward the city, the foothills, and the jagged Anaconda Range beyond. The sun sent a fine trickle of sweat down his back as he strode toward yellow caution tape staked in a large square around the fire’s point of origin, concealed with a blue tarp. If this was like the Helena case, the tarp covered a body, and he was not getting back to fencing anytime soon.
Resettling his hat, he strode toward Sheriff Harry Wexler, who was tall, broad shouldered, and sported a full belly earned in countless hours behind the wheel of a car. Bryce extended his hand, “Sheriff Wexler.”
“Sergeant McCabe.” The older man’s weathered hands still packed a heavy-duty grip. “Caught you on your day off, didn’t I?”
“It happens.” He could not remember the last time he’d really kicked up his heels. Was it that Christmas with Pops and Dylan three years ago?
“I hear you inherited Pops’s ranch,” Sheriff Wexler said.
“That’s right.”
Montana was about 150,000 square miles, but Bryce had been in the field six years, enough time to meet most of the state’s lawmen and women. And if he was not acquainted personally, there was always someone to tell him what he needed to know. The flip side was his personal business had a way of making the rounds as well, which had not bothered him much until lately.
“Means a commute to Helena, doesn’t it?” Wexler asked.
“Less than an hour. I don’t mind the drive. And I still have several months left on my Helena apartment lease.” A breeze rushed up the hill, and yellow tape rippled. “Who called it in?”
“A mountain biker who rides these trails every evening after work. He was finishing up his run when he smelled the smoke and saw the flames. He called my office as soon as he rode down the mountain and hit cell phone service.”
“What time was that?”
“About ten p.m.”
“Did he see anyone up here?” Bryce asked.
“Said sometimes he sees kids or tourists on the ridge taking pictures. Selfies, you know. But he didn’t see anyone last night. I have his name if you want to interview him.”
“Thanks.” Bryce stared toward the fire’s epicenter and braced. “I best have a look.”
“I ain’t seen a body like that before, but I heard about the other in Helena. Jesus H. Christ.”
With a nod, Bryce worked his hands into the gloves. “Have any of your deputies been walking around up here?”
“No, sir,” Sheriff Wexler said. “The responding deputy was focused first on the fire. We’ve had rain, but it’s still dry. When the deputy saw the body, he suspected this case was connected to the other one, roped off the scene, and backed away. I’m afraid in the dark he trampled the tire tracks and the area around the body pretty good. He also had to wait for the body to cool before he could cover it.”
“And the mountain biker? Did he come up here?”
“Said he didn’t get near the scene. Just called in the fire.”
Cases like this could be made or broken by a first responder. The scene could be altered and valuable evidence destroyed by untrained ignorance or police personnel struggling to secure the scene. In the latter case, there was no blame to hand out.
Bryce moved toward the blue tarp and with the sheriff’s help removed it. Carefully, he crouched for a better look. The charred remains lay on its back, its head pointed toward the valley and the distant mountains. The now-heavy smoky scent of burned hair, flesh, and bone swirled in the breeze. The blackened, marbled remains had withered appendages with snubbed fingers and toes consumed in the flames. The featureless face had a gaping jaw frozen in a ghoulish, toothy laugh.
Sheriff Wexler’s voice rattled with unprocessed emotions. “Don’t know what kind of person does this. I’ve seen bad things in my years, but this might be the worst.”
“Always amazes me what humans do to one another.” Bryce searched for clothing or jewelry. There was none.
Sheriff Wexler pulled off his hat and rubbed his forehead with his sleeve. “The medical examiner’s office is sending up a death investigator. She should be here any minute.”
Bryce rose, favoring his right knee twisted on an Afghanistan march a decade ago. He took a moment to let the joint settle before he moved around the corpse to view what remained of the face. If he did not know what to look for, he might have missed the facial mutilation below the char.
“Did he do this to the other one?” the sheriff asked as he popped a mint in his mouth.
The other one had been found near Helena in mid-July. The medical examiner in Missoula had determined the victim had been female, Caucasian, and in her late twenties to early thirties. She had been stabbed multiple times, and her body had been stripped clean of clothing and jewelry; however, there were no signs of sexual assault. The killer had also removed the skin from the victim’s face before dousing the body with gasoline and setting the remains on fire. The inferno had done an expert job of destroying forensic evidence and the victim’s identity. DNA had been extracted from back molars and submitted for testing, but so far the victim had not been identified.
Gravel rattled under Bryce’s kneecap as he flexed it. “It looks pretty damn similar.”
The sheriff’s radio squawked. The deputy stationed at the roadside below announced the arrival of the medical examiner’s death investigator, Joan Mason. A former Philadelphia cop, Joan had relocated to Montana a year ago and taken the job in the medical examiner’s office shortly after the New Year.
Approaching footsteps had Bryce turning to see the brunette with a lean, athletic build. She wore jeans, weathered boots, and a navy-blue wind slicker that opened to a white T-shirt. She pulled on disposable gloves as she moved with steady steps toward the scene. When she saw the body, her pace faltered a beat before she steeled herself and continued forward.
“Harry.” Joan’s Philadelphia accent drew out the sheriff’s name as she shook hands with him and then Bryce. “Bryce, good to see you. Wish it could be under better circumstances.”
“Unfortunately, it’s rarely a good day when we cross paths,” Bryce said.
Joan was not a sworn officer in Montana, but ten years in the Philadelphia Police Department as a beat cop and then later as a homicide detective had equipped her with keen investigative skills and a no-nonsense urban street cop directness that won her praise in Montana’s law enforcement community. “Like the Helena victim.”
“Seems to be,” Bryce said.
As Joan circled slowly around the body, her expression turned grim. She cleared her throat. “Animal. No, I take that back. That isn’t fair to animals.”
She was right. Wilderness predators hunted for food and survival, not for sport.
Silence settled around Joan as she absently pushed up her sleeves, revealing the pink, puckered flesh on her forearm. Arson had been Joan’s specialty when she had worked back east, and the burn scars were living reminders of the monsters she had tracked.
Bryce remained silent, giving her time to mentally shore up her resolve brick by brick. There were scenes like this that they all needed time to process.
Bryce had been called to the first crime scene, which at the time had been classified as a violent anomaly. The rescue and police crews that had worked the case had been stunned by the way the body had been savaged. The theories floating around included domestic violence, drug cartels, and human trafficking. No conclusions had been reached, so he’d had the body sent to Missoula, to Joan’s boss, the state’s best medical examiner, Dr. Peter Christopher.
Joan cleared her throat. “I assisted Dr. Christopher when he did the autopsy on the first victim. The doc determined the cause of death was stabbing.”
“There’s a lot of blood on the rock near the overlook and on the ground around it,” Sheriff Wexler said.
Joan squatted near the victim’s head and examined the skull. The slow rise and fall of her chest, coupled with unsettling uneasiness, suggested she was replaying her last brutal hunt for the arsonist who had nearly burned her alive.
“It looks like the face was removed in this instance as well.” She pointed to a slight cleft along the hairline. “In my opinion, here’s where the killer cut. Of course, that’ll be for the doc to officially confirm. I assume you want the body sent to him?”
“Yes,” Bryce said.
She rose with enviable ease. “The doc and I have had several discussions about this killer.”
“He’s crazy as hell. And the consensus is to call Dr. Ann Bailey. Her background in forensic psychology could be of real use untangling this killer’s mind.”
“She’s back from summer vacation?” Bryce asked.
“And moved back into Missoula and starts teaching at the university in a week,” Joan said.
Dr. Bailey was in her early thirties and a professor at the University of Montana in Missoula. She was well respected in her field and had lectured to Bryce’s police recruits in late May on the topic of abhorrent behavior. If the class she had taught was any indication, this case was right up her alley.
Red and blue lights flashed as the state’s forensic van pulled off the gravel road and lumbered as far as it could before parking. The crew unloaded a tent and tables and established their base of operations.
“The forensic team is here mighty quick,” Sheriff Wexler said. “Takes pull to get them up here pronto.”
Bryce had made one call on the drive over. The fast results attested that this case did not require influence. Any officer who’d seen the file understood a dangerous killer was preying on their state. “Joan, what do you need from me?”
“Nothing either of us can do until I’ve processed the body and the forensic techs do their job,” she said, nodding to the three-person crew. “I need to radio my office and have my appointments canceled. It’s going to be a long day.”
“Most are,” Bryce said.
As she stepped away, Bryce stared at the hate-fueled devastation unleased on this individual. Motivations for violence had never been much of an interest to him. Like any good hunter, he focused on following the physical evidence left behind by the killer. He left the higher reasoning to the doctors, defense attorneys, and judges. But if this scene was like the last, there would be precious little physical evidence, and he would need a specialist like Dr. Bailey to point him in the right direction.
He checked his phone and was not surprised to see he had no service up here. He would have to be nearer to the road for that. The silence this land offered had been the reason he had returned home twelve years ago. Far from the choppers, explosions, and endless gunfire, he had gladly disconnected.
But as he walked down the hillside, opened his contacts, and stared at Dr. Ann Bailey’s name, the idea of isolation was not so appealing.

Near You Reviews

“Thrilling novel… fans of romantic suspense will be enthralled.”  –Publisher’s Weekly STARRED review

“Scorching action. The twists and turns keep the reader on the edge of their seat as they will not want to put the novel down.” —Crimespree Magazine